Reading the gripping recent book by Uwe Wittstock on the activities of German writers and artists in the shock of February 1933, I just came across this passage from the little-known writer Hans Michaelis, published in the Berliner Morgenpost, reported from Japan on a medical innovation against the dangerous wave of flu then circling the globe:
„Die Bazillenmaske: Ein Oval-geschnittenes schwarzes Stück Tuch wird vor Mund und Nase gebunden, und hat die schwere Aufgabe den Bazillen den Eintritt zu verwehren.“ Allerdings wird die Mund-Nase-Maske, zur Überraschung von Michaelis, nur unter freiem Himmel getragen. In der Bahn und im Büro setzen die Japaner die Maske ab. “Sie sind der Überzeugung, dass sich die Grippeerreger vor allem auf der Strasse verbreiten, nicht in geschlossenen Räumen.”
“The bacteria-mask: An oval of black cloth is tied in front of the mouth and nose, and has the challenging task of denying entry to any and all bacteria.” To be sure, these nose-and-mouth masks are only worn outdoors, much to Michaelis’s surprise. In the train and in the office the Japanese take the masks off. They are convinced that the flu germs spread mainly on the street, not in enclosed spaces.
Several things stand out about this report: First, how strange it is to see the hygienic mask as a new piece of technology. Particularly since we‘ve now all seen photographs from the US from the 1918-19 flu pandemic. It‘s not clear to me what was known when about the usefulness of medical masks.
Second, it‘s interesting to see innovations from Japan being taken so seriously, by an early 20th century European.
Third, when I visited Japan in 2005 I was interested to see so many people wearing masks on the street. I attributed this to the recent experience of SARS, but possibly the affinity for medical masks goes back much further.
Finally, there is this restriction of masks to outdoors, exactly the opposite of what we learned to do with COVID. I wonder if there was some misconceived medical theory behind this, or if it was simply the common intuition that one is safe indoors. Seeing public transport as “safe” in that way seems very strange, though.